Matt C. Abbott
'Cleansing Fire: Welcome to the New Springtime'
By Matt C. Abbott
August 7, 2009

Catholic scholar and attorney Peter B. Kelly, JD, MTS, MS(nrp), MS(ce), is passionate about the Catholic Faith. A former radio personality, Mr. Kelly resides in Wisconsin and attends Mass at St. Mary's in Rockford, Ill. He recently published a 724-page novel titled Cleansing Fire: Welcome to the New Springtime.

Cleansing Fire is "a work of fiction set against and among some actual [Church-related] historical characters, facts, and events." But not to worry — Mr. Kelly is no Dan Brown. Not by a long shot.

Mr. Kelly dedicates his novel to his wife and their five children, and to the late Fathers Charles Fiore and Alfred Kunz, both of whom were good friends of his. On the back cover, one finds several interesting quotes, including the following:

Pope Saint Pius X (1910): "We are witnessing a great movement of apostasy being organized in every country for the establishment of a one-world Church which shall have neither dogmas, nor hierarchy; neither discipline for the mind, nor curb for the passions...."

Pope Paul VI (1968): "The Church is in a disturbed period of self-criticism, or what could better be called self-demolition."

Pope John Paul II (1980): "We must be ready to face great trials, which could also require the sacrifice of our life for Christ... Let's be strong and let's get ready, having faith in Christ and in His Mother. Let's pray much and often the Holy Rosary."

Mr. Kelly has graciously allowed me to reprint an entire chapter — chapter 19 to be specific — of Cleansing Fire; it's titled "The Sacred Monster of Thomism." Endnotes are not included in this reprint. Anyone interested in purchasing the novel can e-mail me and I'll put you in touch with Mr. Kelly. (Serious inquiries only, please.)

    'The Sacred Monster of Thomism'

    'Who was the greatest theologian of the twentieth century? Many, seduced by the glamour of personality (which obtains even among theologians), would answer Karl Rahner, S.J. But some who know how ferociously certain pre-Vatican II thinkers were buried by the liberals and reformers would look elsewhere entirely. One who loomed like a giant was Pere Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., who is now being slowly rediscovered, not least by Father Aidan Nichols, O.P., who has accepted a new lectureship at Oxford University in part to reassess his work.'

      — The Latin Mass Society of England and Wales, "A Saint in Heaven"

    'I glimpsed how the doctrine of the Catholic Church is the absolute Truth about God, about His inner life, and about man, his origins and his supernatural destiny. As if in an instant of time, I saw how this doctrine is not simply 'the best we can put forward based on our present knowledge,' but the absolute truth which shall not pass away...'

      — Father Garrigou-Lagrange on reading, as a youth, a book by Catholic philosopher Ernest Hello.

In comparison with the other Spartan rooms in the late 1940s at the Angelicum — the Dominican University in Rome — his small cell was particularly bare. His bed, from which he rose too early this day, was not likely to have provided much comfort anyway. It was once described by a contemporary as "a pallet and a mattress so thin that it was virtually just an empty sack." But like the Holy Cure of Ars, his lifestyle reflected the conviction that asceticism should be a permanent necessity in this life because our fallen natures incline us to sin and because, through such asceticism, we might be made even more sensitive to and receptive of the infinite good which is God. This is what he taught generations of his seminary students at the Angelicum. This is how he lived. There never was about him any disparity between the presentation and the practice. Truth was truth. Truth was revealed, knowable, and unchangeable, and he was dedicated to living, and teaching, the truth.

It was still dark. He could put in several hours at his desk by lamplight before his brother Dominicans would assemble for the first Choir of the day. He would, as always, be there in line. Among the members of the Order of Preachers at the seminary, he easily could have received a dispensation from attending the choral office given his international prestige and his heavy teaching load of courses in Aristotle, apologetics and spiritual theology as well as his supervision of doctoral students. Yet he would never consider foregoing his time for prayer with his confreres because, he would say, "liturgy is our entertainment." Besides, his heart was troubled this morning by one particular doctoral student and he needed to place this special burden before God several times again today.

He was born Gontran-Marie Garrigou-Lagrange to a dedicated Catholic family in the south-west of France in 1877. His original plan was to help heal mortal bodies and not immortal souls. Consequently, he began his studies in medicine at the University of Bordeaux in 1896. However, God led him to find there and read a book by the Catholic Philosopher Ernest Hello. Hello's book then caused him to rediscover more intimately the absolute Truth about God and how it was unquestionably revealed in the doctrines and dogma of the Catholic Church. It was not that he needed conversion. He always was a faithful Catholic. It was just that God needed him in a more intense battle, not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers.

At the age of twenty Garrigou entered the French Dominicans and received the religious name Reginald. He then was blessed in his initial training with Dominicans committed to implementing Pope Leo XIII's encyclical letter Aeterni Patris which stressed the critical importance of the philosophy and theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas. But his was not to be a life of quiet study of the Angelic Doctor. Rather, he was to be a champion for the Church in the battle for the hearts and minds of Catholics throughout the twentieth century. He was particularly well-suited to use his natural gifts to confront that "confused effort, made sometimes with good intentions and sometimes with bad, to 'reinterpret' Catholic doctrines in line with prevailing trends in history, philosophy and the natural sciences." That "effort" had a name. It was called "Modernism." One of its many false axioms was: "A theology which is not current (does not keep changing) will be a false theology." Garrigou would fight such lies for the rest of his life and in doing so, he would often quote Pope Saint Pius X on the Modernists: "They pervert the eternal concept of truth" (Denz. 2080).

In those early days, the two great proponents of Modernism he met in battle included a former professor of his, Henri Bergson, and a famous "Catholic" philosopher named Maurice Blondel. Bergson challenged the Catholic concept that with God's help we can, indeed, grasp the unchanging natures of things and, in so doing, may form dogmas that will never need to be revised. Garrigou's talent, nature and conviction as a respectful but forceful controversialist allowed him to respond to that challenge so well that he led this same Professor Bergson to begin to fulfill his Jewish faith in Catholicism. Unfortunately, Bergson died before he completed that process in baptism.

For Garrigou, Blondel similarly compromised, with his own novel Modernist views, some aspects of the settled "supernatural order" which was, to Garrigou, of the essence of Christianity. Blondel rushed in where angels feared to tread. It was as if some tourist in the Louvre dared to take a black marker to "improve" the expression of the Mona Lisa, or a member of the audience added a harmonica part to "finish" a work of Beethoven. But it was much worse than that. Such a presumptuous and disrespectful liberty taken by Blondel, when applied to the revealed and unchangeable Truth of God which had to be carefully preserved by the Catholic Church, threatened the presentation of the Truth for subsequent generations.

Blondel's ideas, like those of all Modernists, threatened to undermine distinctions and definitions upon which the human understanding of authentic Catholic theology was built. For this reason, Garrigou, anticipating the teachings of Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Humani Generis, rode into battle against the growing ranks of Blondels marching on the Church. He was magnificent in this intellectual warfare, mounted on a steed of lightening wit, and brandishing, with world famous mastery, the sword of the Angelic Doctor — the philosophical and theological presentation of the faith hammered, formed and hardened by fellow Dominican, St. Thomas Aquinas.

His pedagogic skill placed him on the faculty of the Angelicum in 1909 at the age of only thirty-two. There he taught for over 50 years as he wrote 28 books and over 600 articles. He was a joy to watch in the lecture hall. As one student described it: "His small eyes were filled with mischief and laughter, his body was constantly moving, his face was able to assume attitudes of horror, anger, irony, indignation and wonder." But he was no entertainer. He was a warrior. With Saint Thomas's texts gripped tightly in his right hand and the shield of Catholic Truth bearing the crest of Holy Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the Magisterial Teachings of the Church in his left, he was, in the unfriendly words of the novelist Francois Mauriac, "that sacred monster of Thomism."

He took his seat on the hard wooden chair before his small desk and switched on the lamp. He looked down upon the draft of the doctoral dissertation that was troubling him: "Doctrina de fide apud S. Ioannem a Cruce [The Doctrine of Faith According to St. John of the Cross]. The young priest who he was advising through this writing project was gifted in some ways but he was dangerously naïve, or worse, in others. His teacher, Garrigou wrote his final critique of the dissertation the night before but then decided to sleep on it to see if his heart would change what his mind had penned. His evaluation touched upon one serious conflict he detected in the work that could be described as an ominous mustard seed of Modernism: appearing small at first, but with tremendous and hazardous growth potential.

He had seen this conflict of scholarship and recklessness before in several other students of his over the years. They were, for the most part, appropriately spiritual men but they were theologically restless. They were apparently searching, irrationally, for something more in their spirituality than what the Church had provided them by the ton. Yet they paradoxically ignored or grew tired of the deep truth which he personally had placed at their feet for consideration. They habitually peered around the wide and firm pillars of neo-scholasticism for a new way, a new path, and a new destination that they assumed, with unjustified optimism, would somehow bring them closer to God than would the settled truth which God, through their teacher, had already shared with them.

They were so naïve. They were naïve in thinking that they could set out alone on this new theological journey but would never really leave their well-constructed spiritual home in the process. Father Garrigou was content to believe that they did not ever intend to become prodigal sons. He believed this because, at first, they had never expressed to him a desire to leave the theological fields of the Father. They just wanted to walk to the property line of Catholic scholarship. Yet the more fences they crossed in their theological exploration of the landscape of twentieth century secular thought, the easier leaping such boundaries became. Eventually the voice of Mother Church, calling them home, faded behind them in the swirling winds of societal evolution. By then it was too late. As they wandered, just a little farther on, they could not resist still another intriguing path leading further into yet another deep, unfamiliar wood.

One of his best students never came out of that wood. Marie-Dominique Chenu had shown so much promise in his early years. But then, his restlessness led him initially to the point that he separated himself from the kind of Thomism traditionally practiced in the Dominican Order in favor of a far more "historical" and questioning approach to the subject. But that was just the start of his process of questioning and revising almost everything in the Catholic Faith. Chenu eventually became less convinced that truth was as settled and as unchangeable as his teacher believed. It did not help matters that Fr. Chenu then involved himself in the distracting "worker-priest movement," as if there was not more than enough heavy lifting for a priest to do in his service to the Church and the paramount process of the salvation of souls.

Father Garrigou was always concerned about the principles developed by Chenu which encouraged his problematic choices that led him farther away from Catholic truth. Aquinas would say, "A small error in principle is a great error in conclusion." Father Garrigou worried about where Father Chenu would end up, given the direction Chenu's own principles had already set out for him. Fr. Chenu was to be a rising voice in the Church — that was clear. But one question vexed his former teacher: If Fr. Chenu was ever in a position to help lead the Church, just where would he hope to take it?

Another Dominican, young Yves Congar, also seemed to be cut from the same cloth as Chenu. Congar was present at some of the retreats preached by Garrigou but the teacher could detect within Congar that same restlessness and growing discontent with the theological traditions that had been so perfected by the Church over the centuries. There were many more like them both, drifting into the seminaries and monasteries of Europe at that time. There they would find each other and feed their mutual restlessness with more ideas of theological evolution, social change and discontent with the status of eternal Catholic Truth.

Some things to the average Catholic were beyond question, like the idea that God did not change and that He was the same yesterday, as He will be today and tomorrow. Just as God has not changed, most experienced people wisely recognize that humanity had not altered itself much either since the garden. Human kind still struggles with the same vices and failings which always exacerbated the common problems of life. Human kind always struggled in its quest for earthly happiness in the near term and eternal salvation in the long. The problem for some of these restless students of his was not that there were no answers provided by the Church to the problems of living and dying. It was, rather, that those answers given by the Church through its "old theology" were not easy to live with and to live through. Those answers also seemed too harsh and they excluded too many people from ultimate happiness if those people would not pay the price required to buy in to that truth.

The Modernists, in response, were seeking easier solutions to life's difficulties. To find it, they had to first erode, then break down, and finally cast off the old ways in order to replace them with the new. Father Garrigou knew that this Modernist dissatisfaction with settled truth could only bring the destruction, rejection and loss of the religious faith they were trying to improve. But the Chenus and the Congars, and their Jesuit colleagues like Jean Danielou and Henri de Lubac apparently could not see the inherent danger to the faith lurking behind such proposed renewal. They could not comprehend that they had grasped initially all of the wrong principles and so they were destined to live out a nightmare of disastrous conclusions.

Their approach to the theological revision of Christianity began in Father Garrigou's time to be known by another, less pejorative name than its old title of Modernism. It was intended to be a fresh approach to an evolving truth rather than an old synthesis of damnable heresies. Hence this novel expression of Chenu, and Congar and Jesuits like Jean Danielou and Henri de Lubac came to be known as the nouvelle theologie, or the "new theology."

There was no traditional teaching of the Church which these reformers would not attack. For example, another name, Father Hans Urs Von Balthasar, would take the new theology to the extreme edge when he would suggest, for example, that all Catholics may hope, notwithstanding Luke 13:23-24, that all men are or will be saved. He would dare even to contradict Christ himself in his quest to find a kinder, gentler and easier theology. Certainly that is an easier solution to the problem of eternal damnation than is the great commission to baptize and save a planet-full of souls. The problem was, according to Garrigou and the teaching of the Church, that Von Balthasar's "new idea" was not the Truth.

Where, Garrigou would ask himself, would these proponents of the "new theology" end up? He would answer his own question again as he flipped through the pages of the dissertation that lay on the desk before him: they will end up on the road of skepticism, fantasy and heresy. On this exact point he recalled reading a discourse of His Holiness, Pius XII, recently published in L'Osservatore Romano on December 19, 1946:

    'There is a good deal of talk (but without the necessary clarity of concept), about a 'new theology,' which must be in constant transformation, following the example of all other things in the world, which are in a constant state of flux and movement, without ever reaching their term. If we were to accept such an opinion, what would become of the unchangeable dogmas of the Catholic Faith; and what would become of the unity and stability of the Faith?'

Father Garrigou knew too well the answer to the Holy Father's rhetorical question. He had already seen the whole diabolical process at work. He once wrote, in connection with the application of "new principles to the doctrines of Original Sin and the Eucharist," the following:

    'Some will no doubt say that we exaggerate, but even a small error regarding first ideas and first principles has incalculable consequences which are not foreseen by those who have likewise been fooled. The consequences of the new views, some of which we have already reviewed, have gone well beyond the forecasts of the authors we have cited. It is not difficult to see these consequences in certain typewritten papers, which have been sent (some since 1934) to clergy, seminaries, and Catholic intellectuals; one finds in them the most singular assertions and negations on original sin and the Real Presence.

    'At times, in these same circulated papers, before such novelties are proposed, the reader is conditioned by being told: This will appear crazy at first, however, if you look at it closely, it is not illogical. And many end up believing it. Those with superficial intelligence will adopt it, and the dictum, 'A doctrine which is not current is no longer true' will be out walking. Some are tempted to conclude: 'It seems that the doctrine of the eternal pains of hell is no longer current, and so it is no longer true.' It is said in the Gospel that one day charity will be frozen in many hearts and they will be seduced by error.'

He knew it was the strict obligation of conscience for traditional theologians like him to respond to such error, lest he gravely neglect his duty. For such neglect he would be required to account upon his death before Almighty God. It was also his sacred role as a teacher of theology at a seminary to warn and guide his students away from perspectives that might lead to more profound errors later on in their priestly lives. "A small error in principle is a great error in conclusion." That axiom of Thomism had frequently been his response to many assertions in the dissertation that lay before him now.

This student was fortunate to have him as a doctoral studies advisor since Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP was indeed the undisputed master of traditional neo-scholasticism and was, as well, intensely interested and qualified in the mystical tradition, and particularly in St. John of the Cross, the student's dissertation topic. Not only did Garrigou have an encyclopedic knowledge to support his intellectual combativeness, he was also uncommonly accessible to his students who were eager to get into his Saturday afternoon seminars on spirituality. Many of his priest-students asked him to be their confessor as well. There was literally no better man on the face of this earth to advise this student on this project. Why, then, was he encountering this resistance?

There was certainly mutual respect between the two priests, even though one was a world famous master of his field and the other a student priest with less than two years since ordination. Still, these men thought of St. John of the Cross differently. As early as 1917, thirty years ago, a special professorship in "ascetical and mystical theology" had been created for Garrigou at the Angelicum — the first of its kind anywhere in the world. This giant's intellect and spiritual gifts were particularly honored then in 1917 — three years before even the birth of this student in 1920. Significantly, in recognition of his talents, one of the greatest seminaries in the world changed to accommodated Garrigou as a young professor. One would think that in such a shadow this student would humbly set aside his relatively uninformed and recent conclusions about St. John which contradicted such an authority on the subject. Not only did that reasonable submission fail to happen, but rather the student persisted in disagreeing with his esteemed teacher on other points in the dissertation as well.

For the student, St. John, a Spanish Carmelite, wrote in a way that "mapped the terrain of mystical experience." But for his teacher, St. John was a "speculative theologian" whose theological writings had to be placed within the confines of the theology of the Church as articulated by Saint Thomas Aquinas. This difference of opinion was not insignificant. It went directly to the strong opinions Garrigou held concerning the license of any theologian, and particularly those of the "new theology," to dare cross over those fences that kept them in the fields of the Father, and within earshot of Holy Mother Church. He could sense in this student of great charm, and sincere spirituality, that brand of intellectual restlessness and dissatisfaction with tradition that, despite his best efforts, had led so many of his students and other theologians farther and farther away from the Church throughout the last century.

He saw this kind of non-conformity again when the student refused to use the well-settled Thomistic phrase: "divine object" when referring to God in the dissertation. The student held fast to this refusal despite the teacher's criticism of the omission, his well reasoned explanation of the phrase, and his usually persuasive arguments. These words of precision were not insignificant to this pedagogical expert on the subject. The teacher was troubled that such conceptual building blocks and foundational constructs which such terms represented were so easily cast aside by such a novice in the trade of constructing theological concepts and conclusions. Apparently, the opinion of this world-renowned master concerning their importance, as reaffirmed by centuries of their use by the greatest spiritual minds in the Church, meant little to this upstart student. This student would rather take another path simply because the student had more confidence in his own contrary, and youthful, view of the topic.

The teacher was worried as he closed the cover of the dissertation. He wondered if he had been too harsh when he had written his formal review of the work the night before. He pulled those pages out from the drawer and selected the envelope which he would in moments address to the student himself. He tapped the envelope on the desk top as he reflected on the words he had chosen for the spiritual good of his student. No! There would be no backing off of his critical words. He had his duty to present his comments just as he had written them, just as the Holy Ghost had inspired them.

He folded those carefully penned pages neatly and slipped them into the envelope. He knew his criticisms would not come as a great surprise to the young man. He had already verbally admonished the student several times, advising in vain that the young priest was too readily setting himself apart from the tradition-tested vocabulary, the revered formulas and the rigid intellectual categories that represented the theological approach of the Angelicum as a whole, and this master of the topic in particular.

The overall, critical point was that not quite two years into his priesthood, this particular student was already showing an inclination to use new unproven materials, and new untested methods, in the construction of his own personal theology. For some people, that would have garnered praise for creative thinking, bold new approaches, and an exciting personal style. That may be acceptable if one was designing furniture, fabrics, wall paper and ladies fashions. But he and his student were not in the business of starting or stopping trite, faddish trends. They were in the eternal salvation business. Fail in this work and eternity, not just this season's product line, and good taste, is lost. This was all about the principles relied on in the presentation of an eternal, unchanging theology. A small error in principle is a great error in conclusion.

"Dear Saint Thomas," he whispered to himself, "pray for him. Pray also, Thomas, for the many more just like him who are arriving each day at the doorstep of the Church, eager to secretly unpack their projects in the new theology. Pray for them, Thomas, as they cross more of their Father's fences and fail to hear their Mother calling them back."

He knew how careful and discrete they would be at first with their new theological ideas and theories. Still, it would be just a matter of time before these newly ordained doctoral students became the majority of the seminary professors, the bishops and the cardinals of the Church. With so many filling the ranks of the intellectual elite in the Church, God may even discipline his people by permitting the election of one or more of them to the Chair of St. Peter. By that time, the Princes of the New Theology would have their run of the Church. The Chenus, the Congars, the de Lubacs, the Von Balthasars, and so many others, would have risen by then in authority with the vicar of the new theology. Those who Pius XII would now seek to silence will then become the new voice of the Church. May Almighty God have mercy on the sheep such shepherds lead.

Then, with one last prayer that left it all in the hands of the Blessed Mother, as servant of the Holy Trinity, the Sacred Monster of Thomism drew his mighty pen in his right hand and addressed the envelope containing the critique to his doctoral student who needed it:

'To Father Karol Wojtyla.'

+ + +

Father Karol Wojtyla would rise in stature within the Church as Father Garrigou-Lagrange would experience a quiet decline in health. The teacher would give his last lecture at the Angelicum shortly before Christmas, 1959. Thereafter he would remain in his bare cell or in the priory church, praying his Rosary, until he died on February 15, 1964.

By the time of the passing of the teacher, the student was an active prelate at the Second Vatican Council. There Archbishop Woytyla was as enthusiastic about the Nouvelle Theologie that was taking over the Church as he was admiring of its senior proponents including Henri de Lubac, Jacques Danielou, Yves Congar, Joseph Ratzinger, and Hans Urs Von Balthasar. In time, Cardinal Wojtyla would ascend to the Chair of Peter. There, as the vicar of the new theology, the former student, now Pope John Paul II, would name as Cardinals these men of the New Theology who Pius XII once sought to silence. And with that official recognition of their new way, the final fence was torn down.

© Matt C. Abbott


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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He also has an Associate in Applied Science degree in business management from Triton College. Abbott has been interviewed on HLN, MSNBC, Bill Martinez Live, WOSU Radio in Ohio, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's 2019 ‘Unsolved’ podcast about the unsolved murder of Father Alfred Kunz, Alex Shuman's 'Smoke Screen: Fake Priest' podcast, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) and WISC-TV (CBS) in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s been quoted in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and other media outlets. He’s mentioned in the 2020 Report on the Holy See's Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick (1930 to 2017), which can be found on the Vatican's website. He can be reached at

(Note: I welcome and appreciate thoughtful feedback. Insults will be ignored. Only in very select cases will I honor a request to have a telephone conversation about a topic in my column. Email is much preferred. God bless you and please keep me in your prayers!)


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